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Penumbra Overture Open Source

Entry 1686 posted in: 3. Gamebits

Penumbra 2006 TD 2006

In June 2006 a minor incident upset my dreary life. Some people reach for booze, others for drugs, I downloaded the free Penumbra 2006 (tech demo) and started playing like hell.

As usual the story doesn't matter that much, a man takes a boat to Greenland, walks around in a snow blizzard (a rather stupid thing to do if you ask me), gets lost, nearly freezes to death, but luckily finds a deserted underground army bunker where he can - at least temporarily - shelter.

But shit usually comes in twos and the protagonist finds that the door from the secret base can't be opened from the inside. He is now obliged to investigate all the underground rooms and tunnels until he finds a possible exit (this is roughly the same technique Ikea uses to lure its customers in its shops) but apparently some blood sucking creatures roam in the shadows as well (that also applies to Ikea, as a matter of fact)…

More than a first person shooter, you don't even own a gun, Penumbra 2006 TD was an exploring and puzzle solving game and when, at a certain moment a vampire bat flies at your throat, the only solution is to lure it in into a trap or to run away from it, but only after you have stopped screaming out loud. (Theoretically you can also kill the flying critter by throwing a stick of dynamite towards it, but all I ever managed to do was to blow my virtual self up into a million of pieces.)

The horror theme, the makers confessed they tried to imitate a Lovecraftian atmosphere, is omnipresent: creepy noises, dark corridors, long shadows and only two monsters that make you jump into the air when they appear. It is an old trick that unfortunately has been forgotten by game and movie makers: the horror is not present by the abundance of monsters but by the lack of it. (If you know that thirty bloodthirsty zombies will attack you whenever you open a door, there is no element of surprise, and thus no horror, anymore.)

Probably you have realised by now that I was a great fan of the game. I became an active member of the forum. I even published a walkthrough and made a Dutch localisation file (use 'save as' if the link gives a 404 error) that can still be found somewhere on this domain. More a player's guide, than a walkthrough (for instance: I decided not to reveal the different number codes to open the electronic doors but lead the player to the place were they could find the code instead) it rapidly got a few thousands of hits and was the immediate trigger to start with the Unfinished Projects blog (unfortunately I don't have any statistics how many times the Dutch version of Penumbra was downloaded). The first half dozen of posts on this blog were obviously all about Penumbra as I had frankly nothing else to write about…

The Penumbra 2006 Tech Demo was, as its title already declared, a technical demonstration of the Penumbra physics engine. It allowed the player to interact with several object in the game, like opening drawers or stacking crates from different sizes on top of each other to create a rudimentary staircase (I had first seen this kind of game play, but in a less sophisticated way, in William Shatner's absolute stinker Tekwar). This also meant that most puzzles had more than one solution.


Although short (with the proper guide one finishes the game in less than fifteen minutes) Penumbra TD was a huge success and Frictional Games started, thinking big, on a commercial trilogy. You will not find a review of Penumbra: Overture on this blog as I was a bit dissatisfied when the game came out. It suffered from the Blair Witch Project syndrome where the first, cheap and cheerful, instalment suddenly hit the market in such a way that its sequel could only disappoint.

To name one example: the flying bats, I used to call them critters, that suddenly jumped at your throat in the demo had been replaced by zombie dogs, but rather poorly drawn and programmed zombie dogs. Basically it was just a 3D representation of a dog, sliding or tilting towards you, as its legs had not been programmed to move realistically while running, nor did its mouth open or close when biting. Probably the makers, originally a bunch of students who decided to start a game company, didn't have the time, nor the budget to make this more realistic, but graphically it felt a bit as being attacked by a plastic action figure. Rather than frightening the dogs were considered annoying by the game community. (I do understand it is much easier to maintain the horror, the suspense and the surprise effects in a 15 minutes demo than in a 6 hours game.)

The successor, Black Plague (part 2 of the trilogy) was apparently much better, so I read in the specialised press, but I never tried it as I had lost my interest in Penumbra anyway. The third and final part of the trilogy was not to be, although an expansion pack Requiem was made that ties the two previous episodes together (so it is rumoured). So one could really describe the Penumbra trilogy as two games and a half.


I had completely forgotten about Penumbra but The Humble Indie Bundle action from Wolfire that offered 5 games for any price you wanted to pay made my appetite come back. With the bundle I got a Frictional Games reduction coupon offering the complete Penumbra 2 and a half trilogy for the staggering price of 5 American dollars. Even with plastic dogs this is what I call a bargain. So today I am playing Overture again, its atmosphere still is haunting as hell although I am getting pretty seasick by the wobbling effects while running through the many corridors (the game makers have always said the aim of the game is to avoid or sneak past the monsters rather than to confront them, but alas that is something I never managed to achieve).

Open Source

The aforementioned Humble Indie Bundle experiment has been a massive success as nearly one hundred and fourty thousand downloaders donated over a million dollars (1 273 345 $ to be precise) to the game makers and two charity organisations.

If a million dollars was reached Frictional Games had promised to release the source code of Penumbra: Overture and that is what they did last week. So anyone (with the proper knowledge obviously) will now be able to mod the game, create new episodes or even build a brand new game out of scratch.

Frictional Games are currently developing Amnesia, another first person survival horror game.+

The other games that participated in the Humble Indie Bundle were:

World of Goo

and as an extra the quite amazing Samorost 2 was added as well.

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